Ashok Gehlot vs Vasundhara Raje
CM Ashok Gehlot (72)
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his rival Vasundhara Raje are known in Rajasthan as the comeback leaders. Both have survived rebellions, staying afloat in tempests. Gehlot not only crushed a daring 2020 bid by former deputy Sachin Pilot to dislodge the state Congress government, he even kept the CM’s chair in October 2022 when the party high command engineered an attempt to replace him. MLAs loyal to the CM skipped a legislature party meeting ordered by then party president Sonia Gandhi and got away with it. Meanwhile, the CM continued to flourish despite refusing Sonia’s instruction to succeed her as the Congress chief. “Gehlot has proved he’s a magician by surviving in the Congress after defying Sonia,” a party insider says, as the CM, defending Jodhpur’s Sardarpura, eyes a fourth term.
He declared in New Delhi last week that the CM’s chair does not leave him no matter how much he wishes otherwise. Gehlot is confident that his blend of welfarism and personal image makeover in Rajasthan has brought him back in the fight.
“Aap lete lete thak jaoge... mai dete dete nahi thakunga,” Gehlot tells his voters, using welfare politics to counter BJP’s polarisation pitch following inaction in the June 2022 beheading of tailor Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur.
The 2023 budget was an election document which offered a cylinder for Rs 500; free power to 11 lakh farmers; raised annual health insurance cover from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 25 lakh a family. Then came India’s first Right to Health Act which Gehlot piloted. He is now promising to hold a census along Bihar’s lines.
“Gehlot has reinvented himself, and his political and personal messaging. The Congress believes it has a good chance,” a strategist says as Gehlot shows the capacity to emulate PM Narendra Modi’s poll tips. He held Rajasthan’s own ‘Labarthi Utsav’ this year, has arranged contests on government schemes and is rocking the social media — all that Modi does. The question is, can the magician end Rajasthan’s 25-year trend of voting out governments?
Former CM VASUNDHARA RAJE (70)
“Maharani can be down but not out,” quips a Rajasthan leader. At 70, Vasundhara Raje, the daughter of erstwhile Gwalior queen Vijayaraje Scindia and the wife of Rajasthan’s Dholpur king Rana Hemant Singh, has a lot of fire left in her. She may not be breathing that fire much though.
Denied space in the first list of 41 BJP candidates, Raje and loyalists figured in the second list of 83 as the party again hedged its bets on the most popular state leader. Raje will defend Jhalrapatan which she has held since 2003, when she became the first woman CM of the desert state and the BJP, with 120 of 200 seats, won the first full majority. The victory catapulted Raje into a national leader as she had pulled off what the late Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat could not.
BJP circles are abuzz with talk of whether Raje can repeat 2003 when, as a five-time Lok Sabha MP, her Parivartan Yatra turned the tables on the ruling Congress in Rajasthan.
“Raje has vanquished detractors before. Even on the eve of the 2013 polls, attempts were made to sideline her but she survived and delivered,” a Rajasthan leader recalls, citing Raje’s public threat to quit the BJP when GC Kataria announced a yatra in 2012 to build his own leadership credentials. Kataria had to shelve the plan. Raje was made state unit chief.
Congress was routed in 2013 and Raje returned as CM with the BJP bagging 162 of the 200 seats.
But 2023 is not 2013 or 2018 when BJP contested with Raje as its face. This season is about collective leadership; PM Modi has announced that lotus is the BJP’s only face in the state. While much has happened in recent years to rile her, Raje continues to lie low and even thanked Modi for re-nominating her from Jhalrapatan. “Together we will post a record victory,” she promised. Is she biding time?
Shivraj Chouhan vs Kamal Nath
CM SHIVRAJ SINGH CHOUHAN (64)
No one had expected Shivraj Singh Chouhan to last this long as CM. He assumed office in 2005 after OBC stalwarts Uma Bharti and later Babulal Gaur stepped down.
Born to a farming family in Vidisha, Chouhan is today Madhya Pradesh’s longest-serving CM, having held the post for 18 years barring the brief spell after 2018 when the Congress formed the government until Jyotiraditya Scindia’s rebellion dislodged it. “Chouhan’s 18-year incumbency is his top challenge,” says a BJP strategist ahead of the November 17 polls, where BJP has not projected a CM face and has indeed muddied the waters for Chouhan by fielding three Union ministers, including the formidable Narendra Singh Tomar from Dimani.
Though many believe the CM’s days are over, his supporters ask, “If that was the case, why was Shivraj not removed? Did the BJP think twice before easing out Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka and Biplab Deb in Tripura?”
Insiders attribute Shivraj’s capacity to rebrand and to not create shock negatives even for rivals as his weapons. The CM has used the sobriquet ‘mama’ effectively for personal branding. He also has no qualms playing the man next door. Recently, on Navami, he was pictured washing the feet of girl children on ‘Kanya pujan’ — a move the Congress dismissed as “nautanki”. In July, he hosted a tribal who was urinated on, washed his feet, nipping a potential election issue in the bud. To counter Congress’ freebies, Shivraj has launched a slew of welfare schemes.
“The CM has nursed a constituency of women and farmers for years and equally catered to the Hindutva brigade,” says a BJP leader. Blending Hindutva and welfare, Chouhan has so far remained BJP’s best option against the Congress. Post-poll scenario remains hazy though.
Former CM KAMAL NATH (76)
Kamal Nath has been waiting to avenge 2020 when ex-colleague Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP, dislodging the Congress government he was heading. November 17 could be Nath’s chance to turn the tables on BJP and Scindia. And the veteran is leaving no stone unturned.
Nath’s key focus is the Gwalior Chambal belt where the Congress had routed BJP in 2018, emerging as the single largest party to form the government. The Congress bagged 26 of the region’s 34 seats while BJP lagged at 7.
But Scindia’s revolt reversed the scenario in 2020 when BJP regained the lost bastions in Gwalior Chambal and Malwa belts in the bypolls, necessitated by the defection of 22 MLAs.
Nath has since spent much time in these areas, with supporters saying he has little appetite for loss. In a career spanning over 40 years, Nath has never lost an election except in 1997, has been Lok Sabha MP from Chhindwara nine times with son Nakul retaining the seat in 2019 despite the Modi wave. Nakul was the only Congress winner in MP.
Born to a Kanpur Brahmin business family, Nath first contested from Chhindwara in 1980 at Indira Gandhi’s insistence and has since controlled the tribal segment. The only surviving Congress leader to have worked with three generations of Gandhis (Indira, Rajiv/Sanjay and Rahul), Nath continues to brave allegations of involvement in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and has risen in the Congress unlike colleague Sajjan Kumar, who went to jail.
Nath’s deep pockets and proximity with Gandhis landed him the CM’s chair in 2018. He is again in the reckoning as the party guarantees sops to win.
Bhupesh Baghel vs Raman Singh
CM Bhupesh Baghel (62)
A five-time MLA from Chhattisgarh’s largely rural Patan constituency, Bhupesh Baghel has surprised everyone in the state. In just five years of Congress rule, he has cultivated around himself a personality cult that CMs in other states took years to build.
“Bhupesh Baghel’s strongest supporters are farmers,” says a Congress strategist, talking about the careful calibration of the party’s strategy that focuses on improving the rural agrarian economy of the state, which has an over 70 per cent farming population.
The CM’s recent announcement of a farm loan waiver fits into this same strategy. It was this very promise that decisively tilted the 2018 elections in the Congress’ favour, ending BJP’s 15-year rule.
Bhupesh Baghel, facing nephew and Durg MP Vijat Baghel in Patan for the fourth time, is confident of personal and party victory yet again. He recalls with a huge degree of satisfaction the resurgence of Congress after a May 2013 Naxal attack wiped out the entire state party leadership, killing veterans Nand Kumar Patel and Vidya Charan Shukla.
It was after this tragedy that Baghel assumed Congress’ reins as party president in October 2014, slowly turning around its fortunes.
An OBC Kurmi from Patan, Bhupesh has had his share of setbacks, but equally has the ability to rise from the ashes. He lost the 2008 Patan polls to nephew Vijat and the 2009 Raipur Lok Sabha poll to BJP’s Ramesh Bais, but bounced back to victories in 2013 and 2018.
Even rivals wonder how Bhupesh, a revenue minister in the 2000-2003 Ajit Jogi-led government, transformed himelf into a popular state leader with close proximity to the Gandhis. The BJP says he is the “ATM of Gandhis”. The locals say he has revived Chhattisgarhiya pride by notifying important local festivals as holidays and even gazetting a Chhattisgarh raj geet (state song) which his own father-in-law penned.
Whatever be the pitch, Bhupesh Baghel is driving the narrative for himself and his party in a bold re-election bid through two-phased polls on November 7 and 17.
Former CM RAMAN SINGH (71)
Raman Singh is the original pro-freebies politician of Chhattisgarh, the state he has governed for 15 of its 23-year existence.
“Chawal wale Baba, Dr Saheb, Mobile wale baba” are some of the monikers Singh earned during his long tenure as CM. When he led the BJP to victory for the third straight term in 2013, he also became the longest-serving party Chief Minister since its formation in 1980. At the time, Narendra Modi had been Gujarat CM for 13 years.
Once a giant killer who defeated Congress stalwart Motilal Vora in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, Singh is facing the toughest electoral challenge of his life.
The rival Bhupesh Baghel has taken Singh’s welfare politics many steps further, wooing farmers, women and youth with heavy sops.
But BJP has not lost hope in the old warhorse. “Raman Singh can pull off surprises. You can never count him out,” says a BJP veteran, recalling Singh’s rise from a councillor in Kawardha in 1983 to a Lok Sabha MP in 1999. He was the Chhattisgarh BJP chief when the state was formed in 2000 and remained CM from 2003 to 2018.
Though not an official CM face in the ensuing elections, Singh has had his way in the BJP strategy and ticket distribution, leaving the supporters of rivals like Rajya Sabha MP and national BJP vice-president Saroj Pandey gasping.
“All the tickets have been distributed to the liking of Raman Singh. Ex-ministers who were part of the BJP government which fell in 2018 are back in the race,” says a party leader, signalling a continuing though unstated relevance of Singh. The party feels he can dislodge Baghel just like he defeated the late Ajit Jogi-led Congress dispensation in 2003. Singh will personally defend Rajnandgaon, which he has held since 2008.
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